The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was originally published in 1959 before being being turned into two movies and (soon) a Netflix series. After terrorizing students for years with her short story, “The Lottery,” I became intrigued by this novel when a friend read it for a book club. A year later, I’m happy to say that I finished the novel, and in two readings nonetheless. The night I started it, I stopped reading it when I was about 80 pages in because I could tell something terrifying was about to happen, and I didn’t want to be up all night either reading it or worrying about ghosts.
The novel has a relatively small cast of characters: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal scientist; Eleanor Vance (Nell) a shy woman of 32 who has taken care of her mother for the last 11 years; Theodora (Theo) who seems to possess some sort of telepathic or psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson who is the heir to the house, a charming rake, and whose aunt seems to want to get rid of him. If four people from diverse backgrounds staying overnight in a haunted mansion where terrible events took place seems trite, don’t blame Jackson: she invented these tropes. As much as I hate horror movies, I absolutely love terror in books, and Jackson’s novel is a slow, atmospheric build. Once events start happening you know that it’s already out of control, and many questions remain unanswered at the end of the novel.
The Question of Eleanor and Theodora
One of the main questions that I ended the novel with is about Eleanor and Theodora; are they in love? I talked about “lesbian disruptions” in my The Return of the Soldier writeup, but this is something more. Eleanor is the shy mousy girl in the story, she’s living with her sister, Carrie, and her brother-in-law three months after her mother, who she was forced to take care of, died. She hated her mother, and kind of slept through her mother’s demand for medicine, which may have been what killed her. Oops! At 32 years old we get the impression that she’s never had a boyfriend or relationship of any kind, and that she sees herself as essentially unwanted. She has a wild, immersive imagination that fills the beginning sections of the novel, and she covers up the banality of her own life with pieces of these early daydreams. It’s only at the end of the novel that she reveals that she truly has no place to go home to, and it’s crushing.
Out on her own for the first time, Eleanor goes on her first adventure away from home, and she’s the character that the narrator stays with. Even though she’s worried about being late, she’s the first to arrive, which I identify with so much. She stands up for herself to get in the gate, while Mr. Dudley (the caretaker character, complete with terrifying wife) refuses to let her in, and as she does so the reader gets the feeling that this may be one of the first times she has ever asserted herself. At the same time, however, she’s intensely willful, essentially stealing the car from her sister, and making an angry waitress engage in small talk with her. Something is clearly off about Eleanor, but since the narrator is ‘with’ her, she’s also with us, and her behavior is impossible to judge objectively. This continues, arguably at least, until the very end, when it becomes clear that her behavior has become abnormal. One of the reasons it’s so hard to trust her character is the same reason for her selection as one of the Doctor’s assistants: as a child she was haunted by a poltergeist that rained stones upon her childhood home for days on end. When it was finally done the village turned on everyone inside and they were forced to move, none of which Eleanor remembers clearly.
Once Eleanor shows up early, she is shown to her room – the Blue Room – and unpacks. The second character to show up at the house is Theodora, who also seems to be affected by supernatural phenomenon and is strongly implied to be a lesbian. It took me a long time to figure out that Theodora was a lesbian, by the way, but it makes sense that Jackson would be hesitant to include an openly gay character in a novel published in 1959. The clues are that Theodora signs up to be an assistant on a lark – she’s that character, the bubbly, gorgeous, feminine one – and only decides to come to Hill House after she has a row with her ‘roommate’ complete with gifts destroyed and genders intentionally left unspecified. When Eleanor asks if she is married, Theodora says no and laughs. I realized that Theodora was a lesbian once I figured out how the two women could go from fast friends, instant sorority sisters, to sniping at each other, and it was because they were jealous. Not jealous of the attention that each was getting from Luke, the handsome playboy character, because they both wanted Luke, but jealous because they actually have feelings for each other. Eventually, Eleanor just flat out tells Theodora she’s going to come and live near her, and Theodora rejects her utterly. In my reading this has to be because Theodora’s roommate is her girlfriend, and Eleanor cannot simply show up. This was supposed to be a summer fling to help Theodora get over heartache, and Eleanor, in her infinite inexperience, cannot accept that. One passage, I believe, makes and answers the question all at once:
Nothing irrevocable had yet been spoken, but there was only the barest margin of safety left them; each of them moving delicately along the outskirts of an open question, and, once spoken, such a question – as ‘Do you love me?’ – could never be answered or forgotten. (128)
It is at this moment the landscape around them turns to a negative image in black and white, then into an image of heterosexual technicolor domestic bliss, then Theo, seeing something horrifying that is never named, screams for them both to run, which they do. In the confusion, the mad scramble to get back to Hill House, Eleanor sees on the ground what may be a broken cup. The cup is a major symbol for Eleanor within the story, it represents her hope for a happy life, and comes up many times within the story. If it is shown broken, Eleanor’s hopes of a happy life where she ‘belongs’ are shattered, and it’s this image of the cup that foreshadows Theodora’s rejection of her.
Many (most) of the major haunting incidents happen when the two women are together. Even though both reject their seemingly supernatural abilities by denying that they exist at all, it seems that the two women are magnetically pulled together, and also that they cannot be together. It is literally dangerous within Hill House for them to be together. Sexuality is conspicuously absent from Jackson’s novel, yet it permeates the sub-text. This is through the relationship between Eleanor and Theodora (discussed above), the disturbing and unknowable relationship between Hugh Crain and his daughter, and the marriages of Dr. and Mrs. Montague, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Dudley.
Even the Dead Characters Are Creepy
Hugh Crain – the architect of the house – creates a book for his daughter Sophia Anne Lester Crain called A Legacy for Her Education and Enlightenment During Her Lifetime From Her Affectionate and Devoted Father, Hugh Desmond Lester Crain; Twenty-first June, 1881. Books within book are simply always important. Within this elaborate scrapbook, something is immediately amiss; the threat of violence is ever-present in the form of Goya art, depictions of Hell, scathing Bible verses, and burnt corners. Near the end the ‘author’ draws the Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony is enough to convince Theodora – the most gluttonous character – to state “I’m not sure I’ll ever be hungry again” (125). Lust is examined by the characters next, with Dr. Montague repeating “Good heavens,” in disbelief. When Luke asserts that Crain must have drawn it himself, the doctor exclaims “For a child?” and is “outraged” (125). Like the manifestation over Theodora’s shoulder, the drawings of the sins Gluttony, Lust, and Pride are mentioned first, but never described for the reader. The last of these sins, Pride, is said to be “the very image of our Nell here” (125).
Finally, it is revealed that Sloth and Envy are depicted, but the final sin is implied to be drawn in blood (quite possibly Wrath), and the book itself verifies Crain at the very least signed his name in blood. Conspicuously absent is only one sin: Greed. This is important because Crain’s daughters would end up fighting bitterly over Hill House, and one at least was primarily concerned with the value of the objects inside. The sexual sub-text starts with the inappropriate drawing of lust, and it ends with Crain’s inscription: “Live virtuously, be meek, have faith in thy Redeemer, and in me, thy father, and I swear to thee that we will be joined together hereafter in unending bliss,” signing it “Thy everloving father, in this world and the next, author of thy being and guardian of thy virtue; in meekest love, Hugh Crain” (126).
Of Crain’s two daughters we are never given the second daughter’s name, nor are we told who is the older (who lived in Hill House until old age, unmarried) and who is the younger (who married and fought bitterly for ownership of the house). Hugh Crain’s book implies an incestuous relationship with the daughter for whom he wrote it, Sophia, which leads me to believe that she is the older sister who died, unmarried, in the house. Mirroring Eleanor and Theodora, the older Crain sister dies with a young, female “companion” in the house who ultimately inherits it. While Luke (the descendant of “the little companion”) finds the suspicious book in the library, a second book for the other sister is never produced, or even implied to exist.
Lots of Hetero, but Little is Sexual
Dr. and Mrs. Montague have a decidedly odd relationship. Mrs. Montague serves as an interesting foil to Dr. Montague; she is also a paranormal researcher, but could not care less about science. She is also intensely critical of his methods and very self-congratulatory. Instead of being afraid, she feels like that ghosts could really all use a big hug, and brings along Arthur Parker as her assistant.
The relationship between Arthur and Mrs. Montague is never explained, though it is clear and Dr. Montague does not want Arthur around. I believe that Arthur, like Theodora, is homosexual. Dr. and Mrs. Montague are childless, and Arthur is an unmarried man in charge of an all-boys school. Like the Montagues, the Dudleys are also childless. Mrs. Montague immediately deduces that neither Eleanor or Theodora have “mediumistic gifts” like she thinks she does, which is completely incorrect (133). Mrs. Montague is instantly frustrating and while reading her sections I just wanted her to leave; she’s insensitive and rude, generally obnoxious, and the manifestations that terrorize the house during her short stay go completely unnoticed by her. However, there is something far more complicated about her character than the simple shrewish/silly wife trope(s). I need to stop and mention that I have no idea how Netflix is going to treat this character, who is at once completely obnoxious, and some the only comic relief in the otherwise intense novel (along with Arthur, who just keeps offering to shoot the ghosts, were they to materialize).
Upon arriving, Mrs. Montague basically says that everyone else sucks, then goes to the library to use her planchette with Arthur. Dr. and Mrs. Montague don’t share a room, incidentally. When she emerges, Mrs. Montague positively insists that a nun was walled up somewhere, and also that there is probably a well with gold in it somewhere, if she could just dig up the basement. Dr. Montague, embarrassed, dismisses everything she says, which is impossible because Mrs. Montague simply cannot be dismissed. Intriguingly, just as her character is being established as a quack, she produces a planchette transmission that is the same as the words that have been appearing on the walls. The difference is, when Mrs. Montague asks who she is talking to, the answer is “Nell … Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell” (141).
Who’s the Ghost?
Is Eleanor haunting the house or has the house possessed Eleanor? This is one of the central questions of the novel, and one that never really gets answered. It hinges on many things, one of which is how the reader interprets the ‘haunting’ that Eleanor experienced as a child. When assembling his Scooby team, Dr. Montague researched everyone who experienced paranormal phenomena, then ruled out people who are dead or stupid. I think this is a burn on Eleanor’s sister, frankly, since she was haunted, too, and is also alive. The doctor apparently needs these people to trigger the house, though this is never stated outright, he just asks them to take notes. I find it hard to believe that he selected these notetakers so carefully for no other reason than he just wanted people who were used to ghosts.
Dr. Montague is very irritated that his work isn’t regarded as seriously as the work of some others, which comes up a few times, including a tantrum that he has when he isn’t able to measure a noticeable temperature drop. I believe the real reason that he brings Eleanor and Theodora along is because they are, in essence, walking haunted houses. Their presence should be able to trigger supernatural phenomena to a measurable extent, which he then intends to publish. When everything goes toes up in the end, Dr. Montague apologizes to Eleanor repeatedly.
What if Eleanor wasn’t haunted as a child, what if she was the one doing the haunting? She barely recalls it, but it’s well-established that her feelings toward her family are as negative as they are complicated, so why wouldn’t she rain stones down upon them with her mind? I mean, I would. Eleanor immediately comes to the attention of the house, and the house her; it is established in the opening and closing lines of the novel (which are identical) that Hill House is “not sane.” If a house is “not sane,” then it also has consciousness, and Eleanor responds to that consciousness almost immediately. The house is, in its own way, alive, and it is also a woman. More on that later.
The “manifestations” within the house almost immediately target Eleanor when “Help Eleanor Come Home” appears in enormous letters in chalk, running the length of a hallway, the night after the first haunting via cacophonous noise occurs (107). The manifestations have a few major categories: words written in huge letters, hallucinations, and noise that accompanies some force trying to get in the door while laughing. Frankly, the last category is terrifying, and all of them appear to be hallucinations. Theodora immediately accuses Eleanor of writing the letters for attention – Eleanor represents Pride within the text and it’s the break between her own perception (and thus the reader’s, since she is the narrator) and the other character’s perception of her that creates a near-constant dissonance. That Theodora utters the accusation is important because the text establishes that Theodora is psychic; maybe Eleanor does write it, and maybe she does so without knowing that she has written it.
The second time the writing appears, in blood no less, Eleanor is utterly unafraid, while it is Theodora who descends into hysterics. As a result of the blood writing, Theodora’s clothes are ruined, and she is forced to share clothes and a room with Eleanor. These are all things that Eleanor would subconsciously want, an almost too-close closeness with Theodora. Much later in the novel when the door to Theodora’s ruined Green Room is opened, it is completely undisturbed. In fact, there seems to be no real effect of the manifestations other than Luke’s face being bruised and his shirt getting torn at one point, but by then it becomes unclear if it’s actually Eleanor who attacked him or the house. During the violent manifestation in which Luke gets mildly injured, Eleanor loses consciousness after giving herself over to the house:
It is so much, she thought, I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have. (150)
In this moment, Eleanor’s last thoughts before presumably passing out until morning, she surrenders what she “never wanted at all,” which I believe is her power. When she comes to, Theodora is hovering over her and offering to get Eleanor ready for breakfast like a child. In the short passage that occurs after the quote above, but before the chapter ends, Eleanor is unable to form complete sentences. This, I believe, supports that Eleanor does indeed have telekinetic and/or telepathic abilities, and that she has essentially signed them over to Hill House. What she doesn’t seem to understand is that Hill House will not or cannot take her power, but instead it will use her as a cipher. It is after this point in the text that Eleanor is no longer herself.
Hill House, a Woman?
That the house is a woman, and more specifically a (s)mother, is of essential importance. Hill House has claimed its fair share of victims since its construction, all of them women, no less. After Hugh Crain built the house for his young wife, her carriage overturned in the driveway, killing her. His second wife had a falling accident, and his third gets sick with tuberculosis (consumption) after which she and Crain go abroad, never to return. The two daughters from the first marriage are sent away to live with a cousin of their mother’s, but eventually return to fight bitterly over the house. Hill House is officially inherited by the older sister, who never marries, and the younger sister harasses her constantly. The older sister eventually has a girl from the village live with her as her ‘companion’. After the older sister dies inside Hill House of pneumonia, the companion inherits the place, and the younger sister continues with her lawsuits. The court officially gives Hill House to the ‘companion’ who is tormented by noises at night that she believes is the younger sister breaking in, and eventually kills herself. After this, Hill House is inherited by the companion’s cousin, which is how it gets into Luke Sanderson’s family. In this way, every person that has died inside of or around Hill House in the 80 years of its existence has been a woman.
Hill House, too, is gendered as female, a strangling type of mother that Eleanor knows all too well. Luke correctly identifies that Hill House is “A mother house” and talks about how it’s almost too welcoming (156). The beds, to begin with, are too comfortable, and the first night in the house everyone has the best sleep of their lives. The chairs are too plush and soft, but as you sink into them you find it impossible to get comfortable. The house clearly doesn’t want anyone to leave, and the doors shut on their own accord due to the odd angle that everything was constructed on. Then there’s the issue of Mrs. Dudley’s cooking, which is described as too good. When Eleanor and Theodora run away from the unidentified threat in the negative space, they find themselves running, screaming back to Hill House. Eleanor ends the novel looking for her mother, calling to her and searching for her, refusing to leave the house where she finally belongs. Hill House in this way is her mother, determined to take her life away, just as her own mother did.
Much like Hugh Crain’s seemingly incestuous relationship with his daughter(s), so too has Eleanor’s mother committed a type of emotional incest by forcing Eleanor to be her caretaker. Because of the 11 years Eleanor spent taking care of her mother (ages 21-32) she is unable to get married like her older sister does. Similarly to the younger Crain sister, Eleanor’s sister (Carrie) is obsessed with the value of things, and they spend the early part of the novel arguing over a car that they have bought together. The one phrase Eleanor repeats throughout the novel is “journey’s end in lovers meeting,” from Twelfth Night, and the words take on a much more ominous tone when the ‘lover’ she meets is the house who represents her mother.
Mr. and Mrs. Dudley
On the topic of Mr. Dudley (the caretaker) and his wife, Mrs. Dudley, it is unclear when they are actually assigned to care for Hill House. It is before the Sanderson’s get ahold of it, since Luke mentions keeping them on, so they must date back to when the Crain sisters were alive at least. Regardless, I got the distinct impression that they were tied to Hill House in an unhealthy way, and considered that they may be ghosts. However, there’s a lot of evidence that they’re not, specifically that they live six miles away and are specifically mentioned to be six miles away. The general principle of ghosts is that they can’t leave the place they’re haunting.
However, there are some distinctly odd things about them, and not just in the standard ‘odd caretaker of a haunted mansion’ kind of way. First is that they repeat themselves incessantly. When Eleanor arrives at Hill House, Mr. Dudley will not let her in the gate at all, and apparently he repeats this with the other characters. Upon entering, Mrs. Dudley gives her a long speech about what she will and will not do; when Theodora arrives, Mrs. Dudley repeats the speech verbatim. A lot of the speech surrounds her meal cooking duties: breakfast at 9, lunch at 1, dinner at 6, the meals are left out for 55 minutes and then she clears them, after dinner is set out she leaves because neither of the Dudley’s will stay in the house after sunset. This speech about food setting and clearing is repeated over and over in the text, when Luke attempts to get coffee for the doctor he is turned away. The schedule is everything to Mrs. Dudley and she will not talk about anything else, repeating herself incessantly while Mr. Dudley fades completely into the background.
The only exception is Mrs. Montague. In a completely bizarre passage near the end of the novel, when Eleanor is listening in on various conversations, she overhears Mrs. Montague and Mrs. Dudley chatting in a very congenital manner. Mrs. Dudley then offers to make Mrs. Montague a cup of tea, which mirrors her rejection of Dr. Montague’s request for coffee (167). So why does Mrs. Dudley like Mrs. Montague while shunning everyone else? The only answer that I can come up with that makes sense is that she’s a ghost. While I know that she cannot be, there are two things that Mrs. Montague brings to the text besides silliness: the assertion that ghosts repeat themselves to be understood (141-2), and that ghosts just want to be loved and not feared (135). Mrs. Montague repeats her desire to speak to Mrs. Dudley, and everyone else is afraid of her, so if Mrs. Dudley is a ghost and truly doesn’t want to be feared, then it would makes sense that she chooses to be congenial with Mrs. Montague. It also explains all the repeating, which is something Eleanor does as well.
This may be the longest post I’ve ever written, so if you’ve made it all the way to the end, thank you! Believe it or not I actually have a ton more to say about this novel, but I’ve hit a plateau and need to publish what I have. Thank you again for reading!